Old browsers are a pain in the butt, not just for users, but for Web application developers that must keep supporting them. Sometimes that means dumbing down Web apps by avoiding new standards and capabilities. Sometimes that means spaghetti code workarounds, including browser sniffing and branching, to avoid a browser crash.

Supporting old browsers means lots of regression testing when rolling out new Web features. It also means tech-support headaches and customer complaints, even with regression testing.

The challenge isn’t the tech-savvy consumer. It’s a combination of low-tech consumers, who use old hardware, old operating systems and old browsers, along with corporations that choose not to upgrade their employees. Those companies have good reasons not to move: Browser upgrades take IT staff time, might require system upgrades, and might break in-house Web apps built to use old versions of, say, ActiveX components.

The situation is intolerable. Something must be done. Thus, my hat’s off to Google for publicly ending support for old browsers in applications like Docs, Sites, Mail and Calendar. Yes, this will inconvenience some consumers, business users and others who can’t or won’t upgrade. But it must be done.

Here’s what Google said on Feb. 1:

In order to continue to improve our products and deliver more sophisticated features and performance, we are harnessing some of the latest improvements in web browser technology. This includes faster JavaScript processing and new standards like HTML5. As a result, over the course of 2010, we will be phasing out support for Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 as well as other older browsers that are not supported by their own manufacturers.

We plan to begin phasing out support of these older browsers on the Google Docs suite and the Google Sites editor on March 1, 2010. After that point, certain functionality within these applications may have higher latency and may not work correctly in these older browsers. Later in 2010, we will start to phase out support for these browsers for Google Mail and Google Calendar.

Google Apps will continue to support Internet Explorer 7.0 and above, Firefox 3.0 and above, Google Chrome 4.0 and above, and Safari 3.0 and above.

Starting this week, users on these older browsers will see a message in Google Docs and the Google Sites editor explaining this change and asking them to upgrade their browser. We will also alert you again closer to March 1 to remind you of this change.

Google is going to take some heat for this, but on behalf of Web developers everywhere, I applaud this bold action. The sooner we get rid of IE 6 and other non-standards-compliant browsers, the sooner we can all move forward with better Web apps, and also begin unraveling years of gnarly spaghetti workarounds. Thank you, Google!

Alan Zeichick is editorial director of SD Times. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zeichick. Read his blog at ztrek.blogspot.com.